Rebecca is a writer/actor who introduced me to the various techniques she uses in workshops with young children. I was delighted to discover that we had a common belief in offering children a rich artistic diet and in teaching through exploratory play.
Musicians use a lot of descriptive words – not just the standard descriptions like high, low, fast, slow, loud, quiet but also words like swooping, sticky, oozy, crunchy, dark, bright, sparkly, grumpy. Those who have a good vocabulary tend to have more confidence in sharing their musical ideas.
So my initial discussions with Rebecca centred on ways to help young children build a rich vocabulary: using visual aids for pre-readers, onomatopoeic words, acrostic poems, creating ‘word banks’, different techniques of writing poetry.
Music can be such an abstract thing, lacking in concrete visual elements. Once it has been presented, it is gone unless you capture it in some form of notation or sound recording.
One of the best ways to teach the musical element of rhythm is to use the long/short sounds present in spoken word. Children acquire a spoken vocabulary before they can read or write and are quick to catch on to the rhythms of different words.
For slightly older children, one of my favourite activities to explore words and music is by using haiku – the evocative but minimalist way of writing poetry which had its roots in Japan. In using haiku as a creative stimulus, I chose not to follow the strict rules of each line having 5, 7 and 5 syllables but adopted instead the spirit of the poetic form which used words sparingly to conjure different moods.
This haiku was composed by F, my 8 year old student. It was about her recent summer holiday activities:
rainy cliffs train to castle ice cream!
F clapped the rhythm of her haiku. I asked her how she could use familiar musical notes (semibreves, crotchets, minims, quavers) to represent the duration of each syllable in her words. She experimented for a while and wrote down her ideas. Suddenly she exclaimed “Look each line adds up to a different number of counts!” Cue excited scribbling of time signatures…
Next, F chose different instruments to play her rhythms: the triangle to represent the sound of raindrops, fast drum beats to show the excitement of the speeding train, and slow piano notes to describe her memory of savouring an ice cream.
What do you do when you have time on your hands and a glut of tomatoes? Make a tomato graphic score, of course!
Last summer during the 2020 Covid pandemic, my little veg patch produced an abundance of 3 different varieties of tomatoes, little Sungold cherry tomatoes, big fat Mallorcan ones, and some random ones which self-seeded from previous years’ crops.
I laid the semi-ripe tomatoes out in the sun to hasten ripening and amused myself making little impromptu graphic scores. Musical doodling using fruit.
Graphic scores are a way of ‘writing down’ sounds .
They are a very accessible, creative and intuitive way to record and share ideas about sound: a non-conventional form of music notation. Different musical meanings can be assigned to shapes, colours, and lines or simply left to the interpretation of the player.
You can use anything to create graphic scores. I have tried sand (real, kinetic, edible), cardboard, bottle caps, vegetables, sticks and stones, leaves, flowers, pasta shapes, shells, even scrunched up balls of paper.
Graphic scores are very useful to children with special needs because we can tailor a graphic score to meet the needs of that individual. You can make ones which can be contained within reach for people with restricted mobility or spread out over a wide area to promote movement for those who crave kinaesthetic input. Those who find deep pressure calming may like graphic scores made out of playdough which they can knead and form into shapes.
It allows children who have limited mobility, are non-verbal / speech-delayed / pre-literate to express and share their ideas about sound and music. Visually-impaired learners are able to feel textures in 3D graphic scores and ‘read’ musical ideas much like they do with Braille text.
Although they are primarily visual and/or tactile, enticing possibilities are there to develop associations with scent or taste as part of a more multi-sensory experience. For example:
spiral shape + lemon scent = fast music (whirlwind)
a blobby shape + cinnamon = slow, chilled-out music
I can just feel a baking session coming on… flavoured cookie dough for making edible graphic scores, anyone?
“Children should copy first and understand later”.
This statement from a well-meaning but pushy parent was one of the big factors which drove me to start Rhythm Circle.
About 5 years ago, I was struggling to engage with a new transfer student – a 5 year old boy who had a very poor understanding of musical elements despite having had a year’s worth of piano lesson.
I explained to his mother that I would like to spend some time helping her son gain had a better understanding of musical elements and notation instead of pushing on with pure pianistic skills. However, she disagreed strongly, and insisted that I taught him the piano by rote, saying “Children should copy first and understand later”.
This was immediately abhorrent to me as a teacher and as a parent: how could we hope to raise a new generation of critical thinkers if we began by bludgeoning and disrespecting the natural intellect and learning capacity of a child?
She was not entirely wrong, however. Children ARE natural and curious parrots – I suppose it is part of their survival instinct to copy the actions of their grown-ups.
But educators and parents can do so much more to channel that natural instinct whilst nurturing the child’s intellectual faculties at the same time. The learning journey does NOT need to be dumbed down just because the learner is a child. This sentiment is felt strongly by Zoë Challenor , the founder director or B’Opera and a working partner on the Digital Games Project.
The incident with the pushy parent drove me to think about how I could encourage children to engage more with music: not just as operators of an instrument, but as curious explorers who WANTED to understand every aspect of sound.
Music is organised sound. There are several different
elements which work together to create music. A small child experiencing the
world is constantly bombarded with a constant influx of information. He/she
learns gradually how to filter out less interesting or less important bits and
to focus on specific elements.
To promote concentration amongst my youngest students, I embraced some commonly used concepts in Early Years education. One of the most useful was the Montessori practice of ‘isolation of quality’. This meant eliminating all other elements apart from the one which you wanted the child to learn. Very useful for children who are easily distracted as it promotes focus.
This idea was incredibly helpful in my work with
neurodiverse children: one of the common characteristics shared by those who
have learning differences is that they experience sensory overload, and do not
have the ability to filter out less important information.
Whilst recording musical examples for the Rhythm Circle Digital Games Project, this meant recording the same piece of music played in different ways to demonstrate the difference between loud and quiet instead of two different pieces of music which demonstrated the same thing. This was particularly important as chords are often mistakenly associated with loud music and single notes with quietness.
When choosing shapes to use in Dynamic Dots, a graphic score activity , this meant using different sizes of a single shape , colour and material. The size of that shape is the single changing element which corresponded to the ‘size’ of a sound.
Learning by exploratory play was also another idea from Early Years education which was particularly useful. For me, this concept kicked of the creation of many musical games and activities (e.g musical versions of Bingo, Tic Tac Toe, Bowling).
Scientists tell us that when knowledge or skills have recently been learnt, new neural pathways are created in the brain. Repetition of that knowledge strengthens the pathways and aids long term retention. Since, children find games and activities fun they will want to keep repeating those games. So musical games REALLY help learners retain music knowledge !
B’Opera’s presence and support in this project has been a strong reminder about respecting the learning journeys of our youngest members of society – both in the depth and breadth of experiences offered to them. So many neurodiverse children have delayed learning and it is crucial that the Digital Games Project understands how to leverage good Early Childhood working practices to support their learning.
In the next blog, I will be charting my digital working partnership with Trifort Solutions.
I’d like to introduce my son who goes by the nom de plume ‘Stumpy’ (before we had to put his name down on the birth certificate, this was actually what we called the poor child).
Stumpy loves words: the sound of them , their rhythm, singing them, mangling them, making up new words. He also likes paint, mud, orange juice , coins and ice cubes. Especially when allowed to mix them all up. He does NOT like being taught how to sing words. Or what colours to use when he wants to paint. Or just how much water he should use to make a muddy puddle. Or how to form a triangle using coins
Stumpy taught me one very valuable lesson: that sound is just a manipulable – just like paint or mud. And it made him very, very happy to be able to explore and experiment with his favourite materials.
Occasionally, he would become curious about my musical work materials and ask to play with them. I would then bring them out to show him and he would immediately touch them or try and make patterns with them. 3D graphic scores are very popular with Stumpy. Big circles = big sounds, little circles = quiet sounds.
When he asked to play with my bottle caps note values, he got very excited at being able to recognise the letters ‘p’ and ‘o’ (ie. minims and semibreves).
Me (jumping at the chance to pass on some musical knowledge): “Look, this symbol is for a 2 count sound and this is for a 4 count sound”.
Stumpy : “No, Mummy it says ‘poo’. Look, you can make many, many ‘poo’s!”
A musical colleague recently asked me what I do as a musical mum with my child (I have a 4 year old son who recently started school).
My first thought was “Ummmm…….nothing?” But then I thought about it properly and this is the reply I sent to her:
Since my son loves exploring things and experimenting to see what effects he can create, I prefer to let him take the lead in our joint musical experiences. He does not enjoy ‘organised’ musical activity with me but loves singing , making up little songs and sounds. My little one is a joyfully out-of-tune singer but has a great sense of pulse. He enjoys singing and accompanying himself by beating the pulse on a drum/ stomping/bopping to the beat. I guess that stems from being surrounded by so much music since he was in the womb. Throughout my pregnancy and up until he was 2, he was with me when I worked. He has spent countless hours sitting in a dance studio listening and watching whilst I played for ballet class ( possibly where he developed quite a strong sense of pulse??). We used orchestral music in rehearsals and he would nap in a sling whilst I worked, falling asleep hearing rich and complex music .
In the car, we listened to Gene Vincent sing Be Bop A Lula on the radio and he said he liked it, and asked me what it was. When I told him, he kept asking for it on Youtube. When my sister got an Alexa, he learnt how to ask for it and would dance to it. Sometimes, he would tell me if he liked /did not like a piece of music which was on the radio and we would talk about the mood of the music.
As for instruments, I’ve learnt to leave them lying around the house on convenient places. He likes trying out sounds on the piano, ringing the ‘dinner bell’ at mealtimes, drumming on a cake tin to keep himself in time when singing. For me, I guess enabling these musical things to happen are more important than music lessons because my child is learning to listen critically